News (USA)

Lesbian couple wins right to hold ceremony in museum despite state officials’ objections

JACKSON, Miss. — A Mississippi woman and her partner, who were previously denied use use of a state-owned museum facility that is routinely hired out for weddings and other functions because they are gay, will be permitted to hold their commitment ceremony there after all.

The Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum and the state’s attorney general have recognized the right of same-sex couples to hold commitment ceremonies at the museum after the Southern Poverty Law Center demanded the facility end its unlawful policy of refusing to rent the facilities to same-sex couples for such an event.

Ceara Sturgis (left) and Emily Key

The response comes after the SPLC sent a letter on behalf of Ceara Sturgis and her partner, Emily Key, to the museum and the Mississippi attorney general last month. The couple wants to hold their commitment ceremony at the museum this fall but was aware the museum has previously refused to rent its facilities for commitment ceremonies.

The SPLC letter demanded the museum rescind the unlawful policy or face a federal lawsuit. The museum in Jackson and the state attorney general both recognized today that there is no bar to gay couples who wish to rent the facilities for such an event.

Mississippi officials Thursday expressed their objections to being “forced” to allow the couple’s request to rent the museum space.

The State Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Cindy Hyde-Smith, released the following statement:

“In late July, my office received a letter from Attorney General Hood advising that under Mississippi law, the application could not be refused,” said state Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Cindy Hyde-Smith in a prepared statement.

“Based on my personal and religious beliefs, I strongly object to this, but I have no alternative, due to this advice, but to allow the processing of this permit to move forward,” wrote Hyde-Smith.

“However, if finalized, I will immediately begin working with other elected officials and the entire legislature to request clear and straightforward definitions about what activities can take place on the property owned by the State of Mississippi,” she added, “I am hopeful that this matter can be put forth immediately when the Legislature convenes in January.”

Mississippi’s GOP Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves expressed his dismay over the Attorney General’s advice.

“I am disappointed in the decision to allow a permit for same-sex marriage at a taxpayer-subsidized facility to be considered,” said Reeves in a statement Thursday. Reeves futher stated that Hood’s advice went against the wishes of “an overwhelming majority of Mississippians.”

In 2004, 86 percent of voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that defines marriage as being solely between a man and a woman.

Sturgis and Key were seeking to hold a commitment ceremony at the museum this fall.

“Our clients are happy that they will have the opportunity to express their love for one another in front of their family and friends,” said Elissa Johnson, a staff attorney for the SPLC. “We are pleased that the museum has reversed its unfair and illegal policy, and affirmed that gay couples will be treated the same as heterosexual couples.”

“Emily and I are happy that we will be able to have our commitment ceremony in our ideal place,” said Sturgis. “This victory for us will also pave the way for other same-sex couples who want to hold ceremonies at the museum.”

In 2009, then 17-year-old Sturgis was prohibited from wearing a tuxedo in her high school yearbook and senior class photograph — the ALCU of Mississippi filed suit against the school, alleging that “a requirement for gender-specific clothing is a violation of students’ rights to gender equality and self expression.”

The ACLU and the school district eventually reached a settlement in that lawsuit, and the school’s students are now required to wear caps and gowns in senior portraits.

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